No ripoffs, please

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By Hollywood is accusing Bollywood of plagiarism and hauling it to court. Will the crackdown bring about a tectonic shift in the way Bollywood functions? Manjula Sen seeks answers
  • Published 24.05.09
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Hindi filmmakers have long held that imitation is the best form of flattery. But lofty Hollywood studios that usually ignored such praise are suddenly no longer amused; 20th Century Fox has just sought an injunction in the Bombay High Court against the release of B.R. Films’ Banda Yeh Bindaas Hai for copyright infringement of its 1992 film My Cousin Vinny.

Fox’s action is the latest in a rising count of Hollywood taking Hindi filmmakers to task for borrowing generously from their movies. The case, currently adjourned, is even more curious since in a rare move by the Mumbai industry, B.R. Films maintains that it had taken permission from Fox in Los Angeles.

“We think it is a kind of blackmail on their part,” says B.R. Films’ CEO Sanjay Bhutiani. “We met Fox movies in LA two years ago and wanted to know how much they wanted for the idea.” Bhutiani adds that Fox was not interested in the $3-million film. “Now after a year and a half, they are accusing us of stealing.”

Fox evidently said that the Bollywood studio was given permission to use the film’s idea for the basis of a new production, but the rights for a Hindi language remake had not been approved. A remake would include a substantial copy of the film, with major scenes and dialogues included from the original. Using the idea would mean reinterpreting the underlying theme or using the idea as a take off point with minimal similarity to the original.

Clearly, Hollywood is not in a mood to share. In 2007, it was reported that American actor Will Smith and Sony Pictures Entertainment were contemplating suing Eros and K Sera Sera, co-producers of Partner, for $30 million for directly lifting from Smith’s film Hitch.

Last year, Warner Bros (WB) unsuccessfully sued Mirchi Movies, producers of Hari Puttar: A Comedy of Terrors, for alleged copyright violations in the title which it said was similar to its Harry Potter franchisee. The Delhi High Court threw out the case saying there was no “commonality” between the names and that WB should not have waited three years to ask for an injunction just before the release.

WB has evidently taken the advice seriously and is now taking preemptive action. Based on media reports that Bollywood was going to make a film on age reversal, also the theme of its recently produced film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, WB asked the Delhi-based legal firm Lall and Seth to put out a cautionary notice in national newspapers. The firm had done a similar service for their client for the film Departed.

“Films such as Benjamin Button, Departed and Ghostbusters appeal to Indians. Therefore, these were important IP (intellectual property) rights to guard,” says Chander Lall of Lall and Seth, whose clients also include Sony. “If tomorrow anyone makes a film on similar themes, they are courting action.”

But Bollywood believes that there is a difference between ripoffs and inspiration. Bhutiani stresses that he met Fox to show that the Bindaas script was not a replica of Vinny’s. Fox disagreed and went to court in April. Janak Dwarkadas, representing 20th Century Fox, declined comment saying the case was sub judice.

Although the Motion Pictures Association of America is a part of the Film Producers Guild of India, none of the affiliated Hollywood studios such as WB or 20th Century Fox approached local film associations here for a settlement. “We would have loved to have settled the matter through the Guild as the film industry is a family,” says guild secretary general Supran Sen.

Bollywood has long been known for its “inspirations”— so Hollywood’s sudden interest in plagiarism is exciting comment. In 2006, then collegiate Chaitanya Tamhane wrote and directed a 60-minute documentary Four Step Plan on plagiarism by Hindi filmmakers.

But Hollywood is seeking to protect its films now that it has joint ventures in Bollywood, and Indian films are finding wider markets overseas. Lall points out the sums at stake for Hollywood studios are substantial —millions of dollars are invested in screenplay, scripting, research and test audiences.

“When Bollywood was not a competing industry Hollywood did not do anything about it. But as Hollywood studios like Fox and Warner show greater interest in Indian markets, they are sitting up and taking notice. They want to safeguard their property so that there is no illegal competition,” says Lall.

Industry men admit that local filmmakers find it easier to remake films that are tried and tested. There are many Internet lists of allegedly plagiarised films, including the Mallika Sherawat film Ugly aur Pagli (a remake of Korean film A Sassy Girl), Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black (The Miracle Worker), Rang de Basanti (Jesus of Montreal) and Taare Zameen Par (Love, Mary).

Producer-director Mahesh Bhatt flicks away allegations of plagiarism by trashing originality. “The brain is a recycling bin, not a creative bin. What goes in comes out in different ways,” says Bhatt whose films Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin, Sadak and Gumrah were “inspired” by It Happened One Night, Taxi Driver and Bangkok Hilton, respectively.

Hollywood, however, is determined to keep up the pressure. A spokesperson for Warner Bros says, “WB has made a long-term commitment to the film industry in India and is determined to defend and protect the intellectual property rights in its movies. We took the step of publishing a notice regarding the possible unauthorised remake of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to ensure that the film-going public in India experiences our movies in the way they were intended.”

Till now there have been fewer than 30 cases involving copyright laws, and most revolved around the software and music industry. As IP rights have come into focus, safeguarding rights has moved from legal distribution of music to protecting the original idea and concept. Under the Copyright Act, 1957, copyright applies to a work only during the lifetime of the creator and 60 years after it is published or produced. One cannot hold a copyright to any work —Shakespeare’s writings, for instance — that are in the public domain.

Last year, in a landmark judgement, Rakesh Roshan, the producer of Krazzy 4, had to shell out Rs 4 crore to composer Ram Sampath, who sued him for lifting his ad jingle without paying him.

But there are few such judgements related to copyright laws which revolve around not just lifting an idea but representing it. “The temptation of stealing a readymade screenplay combined with the pressure from producers and directors to do so leads many writers to rip off Hollywood scripts,” says Anjum Rajabali, who scripted Ghulam and The Legend of Bhagat Singh.

Ghulam was “adapted” extensively from On the Waterfront, and “it still causes me a twinge of embarrassment every time I think about it,” admits Rajabali. “Legal notices and court battles are now the only way to challenge this trend,” he says.

In the past, many movies were picked up frame to frame — a drift that will now change, feels Rajabali. “All it will take is one case that ends in a judgement favouring the original author for plagiarism in India to receive a huge jolt.”

Film trade analyst and critic Indu Mirani agrees. “Bollywood is scared. This is only the beginning. As things go further, awareness will increase.” Bhatt is not so sure. “You will continue to do what you do but be a little more intelligent in how you do it,” he says.

Clearly the line between inspiration and plagiarism is a thin one.

Lall’s firm is also representing Fox Studio in the tussle over its TV series 24 which it says has been copied in Time Bomb, a Hindi serial. In 24, events don’t go back in time ever — it is a unique and unusual concept, says Lall. Time Bomb was similar with minor changes such as replacing the character of the father in the original with a wife, and an Indian setting.

“Such changes make it difficult to establish ownership. Thieving companies run down intellectual property by breaking down the constituents of the creative work. But IP is all about totality,” contends Lall.

He says injunctions are critical since any post-release challenge is futile. “By the time you get to see the film you don’t get damages. You can keep fighting all you like,” he adds.

But Bhutiani is not convinced. “We took permission and we are being penalised. Others say ‘inspired’ and get away with it. They are asking us for Rs 7 crore. Their intentions can be clearly seen,” he says. “All this suing business is about money,” seconds Bhatt.

Whatever the outcome of the latest case, Bhatt says he will continue to believe that originality is bunkum. “Those who like to delude themselves they are original, good luck to them,” he snorts.